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Hall of Shame

I don’t usually do this but the South Bank Centre emailed me a questionnaire today which was stunningly awful.

My prize for Most Unanswerable Question goes to this pair of lovelies:

What would you put? No, I still have no idea.

On the last page of the survey, after countless other difficult questions, there was a two-part Brand Price Trade-Off question – this question, repeated for the other type of memberships.  IDEK, as they say.   Hard enough to answer when there’s a lady with a clipboard tapping her pen, but a downright brainteaser as an online question.

Please, South Bank Centre, please please please get someone else to check the questionnaire before you go out.   I live in Cambridge (you didn’t ask) and I come to your events once a year.  It’s not that I don’t like you or your acoustically perfect venue. Sigh.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a quick critique and rant

Or, Marketing’s Need to Hear Simple Stories.

If there’s one theory of motivation that everyone has heard of, it’s good old Maslow and his pyramidal Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s the basis of many other theories, including the simpler concept that motivations can be divided into the essentials (hygiene factors) and motivators to action (motivators).

I came across Maslow yesterday while reading a report on public consultation approaches, by someone who is using a Maslow-based system to segment the general UK population according to their values.   These  segments, it is argued, make it easier to predict how people will react in certain kinds of debate.   The approach is apparently popular amongst advertisers.  It’s a proprietary system, so I can’t comment on the detail, and there is no information provided about the reliability and validity of the test questionnaire.    I don’t particularly want to chase after the organisations concerned, because it is quite likely that studies like this one have been  created, sold and reported entirely in good faith.  And that is bloody depressing.

What really concerns me is that marketers and buyers are so damned credulous.   Two minutes of literature searching would yield the uncomfortable fact that while Maslow is hugely popular amongst the self-actualising types, there’s really no evidence for his hierarchy.  Yes, it’s a useful sketch of motivation, and a very pretty pyramid, but there is no evidence that you can account for real people’s behaviour by invoking any part of it apart from the part about people requiring food and water.

It’s an incredibly powerful, deeply meaningless story. We love it. We quote it vaguely.  Then you go and read the Wikipedia entry (which is pretty fair) and think wait, what?

And if you’re a bit cross with me, just think: how would you go about testing it?  What aspects of behaviour do you think create problems for this theory? Do you think that this theory has any political overtones, and does that matter?

Maslow’s theory meets our thirst for very simple ideas.

Managing an ageing workforce

I spent yesterday morning at the launch of ‘Managing An Ageing Workforce’; this is a new report sponsored by the CMI (CharteredManagement Institute) in collaboration with CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development).  Their survey looked at the response to changes in retirement age and retirement practices, and how prepared organisations were for these changes.  Since the survey was done, the coalition government has announced that the Default Retirement Age (currently 65) will be phased out.

I was lead author on the report, which was very much a multi-way collaboration.  Retirement is a complex business.    On the one hand,  pension limitations drive people to work longer; on the other, the recession has led to companies searching for ‘natural wastage’.   Older workers can be seen as reservoirs of deep experience, or as people past their peak. Old hands versus fresh blood.  It’s a challenge.

The report itself discusses perceptions and preparedness in some detail.  At the launch event, lack of organisational preparedness was the main theme.   There were some terrific case studies based on a diverse set of organisations.

One final comment: the discussions reminded me of earlier debates on maternity leave.   Retirement, like maternity leave, is often handled on a highly individual basis.   Legislation sets the parameters of what is possible, but eventual plans are often individual and idiosyncratic, based in some part on the value that the organisation places on the individual.  Like maternity, retirement involves a huge identity shift; and (like maternity) it can be a difficult subject for individuals to discuss in advance.   Publications like this one do a very useful job in helping us have those conversations.

Does your survey reflect reality, or is it just wishful thinking?: Lessons from the Mirror of Erised

Old Mirror

Old Mirror, by Sthetic, on Flickr

One of my favourite devices in the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is the Mirror of Erised.   Harry comes upon this old mirror one day, and when he looks into its depths, he sees his (dead) parents standing behind him.   His friend Ron sees himself winning at Quidditch.  The mirror, it is explained, distorts: it shows the viewer their heart’s desire rather than ordinary reality.   (Incidentally, Harry nearly wastes away gazing into this mirror, hungry for the vision it shows him. But that’s by the by).

Only the perfectly happy person would look into the Mirror of Erised and simply see themselves.

Wistful dreaming of a perfect world is quite a feature of the surveys I get to fill in.   All too often, the people who create questionnaires and research studies seem to concentrate on all the things that are important to them, and utterly neglect the wider context.  The result is a weird distortion of the customer’s reality.

Facebook’s ‘Like’ button is a nice example of this.  ‘Like’ has become a vague indicator of the number of fans that a person or item has. It’s very little use an actual indicator of liking, because there’s no context.   To get some sense of real levels of liking, you might wish to know about dislike, or degree of liking.

In other surveys, I can complete page after page of grids, and yet at the end feel that the questionaire never really captured my opinion.    Perhaps they grilled me on my attitudes to, say, Bluetooth, without asking me if I knew what it meant, or whether I had it, or whether I was convinced it would fry my brain.

Of course, we’re all guilty of distorting our vision to a certain extent.  The problem is that the distortion can become so great that you can fail to collect the simple, essential information that will allow you to make sense of what’s going on.

Some tips on avoiding the ‘Like’ trap:

1. Always get the context

Spend time asking the basic questions.  The most important questions that I ask in an interview or focus group are not the ones in my brief: they’re the simple ones about who you are, what you do for a living, how you keep in contact with your friends.  This bedrock information will help you make sense of feedback.

2. Get an outsider’s view

Check your questions with an actual person who is not part of your marketing/PR/social media enclave, and then take up their suggestions.

3. If in doubt, just ask people what they think

You would be amazed how often no one thinks to do that.  An simple open question works wonders. More context, more emotion, more reality.

4. Accept the feedback

Lots of feedback is a bit random or even negative.  Some of it will be right outside your remit or indeed God’s.  Make sure there are ways of passing information onto the other people who can act on it, but then listen to what people are saying.

This can be damned hard, but sit there, quieten all the voices in your head which are yammering about the unfairness of it all, and just listen. What are people saying?

Now you’re in a position to make a meaningful decision.

POSTSCRIPT: I’m moving my blog over to a different host in the next few days. Please excuse any mess that may ensue.

When cultures collide: LiveJournal, Facebook and the privacy chasm

Frank on Facebook

Frank the LJ Goat, selling out.

So.  A few days ago, the blogging site LiveJournal announced a shiny new feature: the ability to cross-post journal entries and comments directly to Twitter and Facebook.   From the tone of the post, LJ staff were clearly expecting to be showered with gratitude.

For those of you who squander spend time on those other social networks, we’ve just made it easier to stay in touch with your grandparents, forgotten acquaintances, and former bosses on Facebook and Twitter without having to leave the comfort of your LiveJournal home.

At the time of writing, there were 142 pages of comments to this News Update (over 10,000 comments) pretty much unanimously condemning this move.   The Twitter part hasn’t disturbed the users, but the Facebook part has completely exploded in LJ’s corporate, er, face.

The main complaint? Cross-posting creates a huge privacy glitch.  Someone who had Facebook Connect enabled could apparently cross-post a comment to their Facebook, even when commenting on someone else’s locked-down journal.  True, Facebook friends wouldn’t be able to see the whole locked journal entry, but they could read the comment title and then poke around.

The thing is, that while Facebook has persuaded most users to adopt real-life identities, Livejournal is very different.   The vast majority of LJ users have usernames, not real names.   It’s very common to have pictorial avatars and icons, rather than a personal photograph.  Many LJ bloggers lock all or some of their entries, in order to emote more precisely about all manner of subjects from My Chemical Romance to how much grief they are  getting from their distant relatives, their boss and their Facebook friends.

Cleolinda Jones, who maintains a popular blog on LJ, has researched the effect of the cross-posting, and yes, it’s a privacy black hole.  Not because it reveals you immediately, but because anyone with a little talent at triangulation could begin to identify the Facebooker’s LJ friend.

Livejournal, like Bebo, Myspace and other journal-style sites, is losing out to Facebook and Facebook-like practices. It’s not trendy, if it ever was, and a search for stories about this particular user backlash gets one hit on Google News.  (In contrast, the story about World of Warcraft’s attempt to get users to adopt real-life names gets 13.5 million hits and a story in The Economist).

What is particularly telling is that while LJ alerted its users 5 days ago, there has been virtually no management comment, other than a short update to the original news item.

Update: Thank you for taking the time to offer your honest feedback. We understand and appreciate your desire for privacy. We share your concerns. Most of us would not want to publish our LiveJournal usernames or FO (friends-only) comments to Facebook or Twitter either (to the extent we even use them). Please give us a little time to address your concerns. We are listening, and we’ll do our best to respond.

What, said the commenters, is the point of launching a feature which you already know your users will hate? Unless it’s a done deal…

Commenters are beginning to move from earnest argument to vitriol and cat macros.

It’s been five days, now. Five days. Fucking irresponsible. Disgusting. Lazy. Careless. Idiot. Fatcat. Bastards.

One of the interesting things about the user feedback is not only the emphatic rejection of moves which would threaten privacy (and we’re talking about a service that users may pay for) but also the visceral dislike and mistrust of Facebook  culture. Facebook is indeed for the public face – but many users want to keep an alternative service like LiveJournal that preserves an odd semi-public, semi-private internet space. Even if such spaces are going the way of the chatroom.

I’m personally sad about the move.  I’ve been on LJ since 2004, happily yakking about books, film and TV to an assorted collection of geek friends.   I am still hoping that the wilder elements will be thrown out (like the persistent tick-boxes under comments that invite you to cross-post to Facebook and Twitter, which still show up, albeit in grayed-out form, even when Facebook Connect is switched off).

If Facebook is the office, Twitter is the cocktail bar and Livejournal is the cosy pub where you talk to old friends about inconsequential stuff and deep feelings.   I’m fearful of anything which continues to roll out Facebook’s monolithic approach to internet culture: there’s enough of it already. Plenty of room for something different; but I’m not sure the site owners see it that way.

On loving 70-page Powerpoints


Bored!!!!!!! by SAMAEL TRIP, on Flickr

I feel compelled to weigh in on the whole ‘Death by Powerpoint’ discussion.  Steve Gatt of Volkswagen was interviewed in August’s edition of Research Magazine, and gave an interview in which he complained about the standard of market research in general and in particular about receiving 70 pages of Powerpoint when all his team really needed were 15. Or even three.

As I read, I found myself nodding like the Churchill Insurance dog, for do I not complain about Powerpoint all the time?  Do I not, in fact, possess a copy of Edward Tufte’s seminal critique of Powerpoint?

He wanted 15, they gave him 70.   Time after time, apparently.

That’s odd.

And I’m wondering: is something else going on?  So, I have three thoughts: power imbalances, time pressure and researcher disbelief.

Power Imbalance

Listening to the interview, I had a couple of flashbacks to my time as a green young researcher attending what’s usually known as a ‘car clinic’ – possibly the largest-scale market research ever undertaken.   A research company and a car company take over a giant hall space, and do endless top secret research over the course of a very long weekend.

If I recall, automotive research is some of the most scary that an agency will ever undertake. It’s often very expensive, it’s very high profile and the working culture can be robust, to say the least.  It is so expensive that the agency chairman will pop in for a chat.  The politics of large organisations like this are labyrinthine.  The investment decisions are immense.  (NB I have no knowledge of Volkswagen and it may well be entirely cuddly).

It is very, very, VERY important not to screw this up.

Unfortunately, I don’t think these are the ideal conditions for breezing in with three pages of recommendations.  At the very least, you would want to justify your recommendations thoroughly.

Time Pressure

It takes ages to write a very short report. I would also argue that for some projects, the recommendations will be far more helpful if they are jointly developed.    Too often, there isn’t time for the succinct report.

Researcher Disbelief

Every time I hear a market research manager ask for ‘just three pages’, my soul is a little bit crushed.   I don’t really want to admit this, yet it’s true.  You pour everything you have into researching, analysing and reporting and pfft, three pages and a call to action, that’s all we need. Be on your way,  you dull purveyor of data, for we are marketers.

It sounds disrespectful, to be honest.  All those hundreds of interviews, all those miles of road.   That budget, for heaven’s sake.   And yet it often sounds as though you don’t really want to know the detail.

The comparisons don’t wash, either.   Management consultants are liable to produce 140-page documents in densely packed 12-point fonts, and they’ll charge four times the price.

I need to be clear:  I’m not advocating the 70 page Powerpoint when we’ve agreed something different; but I’ve been in many a 50 page Powerpoint and even a 90 page Powerpoint presentation that was client-sanctioned.  It is often the one time that people look at the data, and the one time that the agency is there to explain it.   Also, many private sector clients live in meetings cultures – you could send it in as a document, but they probably wouldn’t read it.

For me, reporting is like a pyramid.  For every 10 minute presentation to the Board, there’s a 30-minute presentation to the sales team and a lost afternoon to the research department.    I think you need them all.   I’m assuming Steve (or his department) also gets the massive reports to file, and the data tables to look at. If not, I’m worried.

I’m also saying this because I do think there’s a mismatch.  Researchers, God bless us, often want to say more than marketers want to really hear.  That’s the tension.  Different agendas, different interest.  My challenge to the marketers is whether they are really getting the value that they should from the huge investment that research represents.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Ray Poynter has an excellent post on getting the best out of Powerpoint.